In October of 2017, the Grand Canyon Trust took 12 Flagstaff artists to the far-reaching northern rim of the Grand Canyon, to a small ex-Mormon ranch. Quiet and isolated within House Rock Valley, Kane Ranch became a weekend home for the three-day Kane Ranch Artist Retreat where the 12 artists learned about and discussed conservation issues surrounding Colorado Plateau. Issues such as uranium mining, social injustices on tribal lands and President Donald Trump’s shrinkage of two national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, both of which reside on the Colorado Plateau, prompted discussion on how to artistically give a voice to a land, although vast and overwhelming with natural beauty, that is threatened.
On the first day of the retreat, the Trust’s director of North Rim Ranches Ed Grumbine asked, “As an artist, how do we deal with things people can’t see? How do we portray feelings and beliefs? How do we really take a look at these issues affecting our region? Because issues create opportunities for resistance.”
More than five months later, the results of those questions and those efforts have been compiled into the Museum of Northern Arizona’s new, interactive exhibit, Voices for the Colorado Plateau: An Intimate Expanse.
Volunteer programs director, Emily Thompson said while the Trust mainly operates with a focus on policy, research and legal action to address conservation issues to the Colorado Plateau, this was the first time it used art as a tool for raising awareness.
“We feel like art is a powerful tool that could help tell stories of public lands. I think right now we’re living in really divisive times, and it’s really easy to get complacent and get overwhelmed,” said Thompson. “For me, personally, art evokes some emotions and can inspire people to care and to act in a way that [the Trust] can’t just by talking.”
Of the many issues threatening the plateau, Thompson said that “at the heart of them are humans and human actions and choices. We’re just at this crossroad, and we need to decide which path we’re going to go down.
“[The Colorado Plateau] is one of the most geologically fascinating, beautiful, unique places,” she continued. “But when you really look beneath the surface there’s a lot more going on and there’s a lot at stake. I’m really excited about artists helping people see what’s really happening here.”
Without a direct prompt or guideline, each artist was tasked with creating at least one art piece to tell a story about their own personal experiences on the land, the land itself or of social, political or environmental challenges that threaten the region.
Deb Strong Napple, a synesthetic artist and painter, created an encaustic painting of a sunrise over the canyon. Using beeswax and natural resin, as well as oil paints and etchings, Napple created a piece that aimed to capture the dizzying and disorienting vastness of the land—a beauty she felt was stunning and overwhelming.
“There was this beautiful tension between what I could see and what I could feel,” said Napple. “Really it was a response to the vastness of the landscape. It was so broad and huge you just couldn’t take it all in one glance.”
Other artists like photographer Andy Orr focused on wildlife, particularly the plight of the California condor, an animal considered by the IUCN Red List as critically endangered with a little more than 200 living in the wild. Orr created a platinum/palladium print, a printing process as old as Kane Ranch and which could last a thousand years or more, of a photograph he took of a lone condor.
“This was an important part of me choosing this printing method because of the need to timelessly protect our land and environment for thousands of more years. The condor nearly faced extinction, but we can’t allow that to ever happen again with any animal species due to human impact,” said Orr. “Being out in the middle of a beautiful valley at the foothills of the Kaibab Plateau gave me a new appreciation for the landscape near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.”
Finally, Diane Hope, an audio artist and sound engineer, took an approach that focused more on the individual artists and their experiences in the land. Using audio interviews and ambient sounds from the plateau, Hope put together two audio pieces for the exhibit, and she encourages visitors bring headphones to listen on. She said interviewing the artists became an emotional process.
“I was very happy with how much people opened up and were really honest about their feelings,” said Hope. “I learned how committed everybody was to what they saw as unwelcomed changes to the region. We talked about that, their art, their homes, the land. It all became very emotional, but we all felt very revived by the land.”
If the land could speak, what would it say? How do we internalize that story and turn into something tangible? Voices from the Colorado Plateau: An Intimate Expanse tells that story, reminding us that the land has a voice and that we should be listening, that the Colorado Plateau is something to love and something worth protecting.
“The world comes here to enjoy the beauty and the solitude that this landscape provides, to experience the amazing awesomeness of the land,” said Napple. “It’s such a place that deserves to be protected and cared for, and it’s wonderful to be playing a small part in that.”